At last week’s ISPO-China I was privileged to speak at the Asian Pacific Snow Conference, but the highlight of my the day was listening to and meeting Mr. Shan Zhaojian, a Chinese ski historian. I would describe Mr. Zhaojian as much more than just a historian. He is Mr. Skiing in China, and he gave a delightful presentation on the history of skiing in China. It’s way older than you think. Most of us consider skiing a northern European invention that started in Scandinavia nearly 5,000 years ago and was perfected in the Alps in the 20th century.
At the end of the day, Mr. Zhaojian handed me a wonderful book. I was honored. Called, “The Original Place Of Skiing-Altay Prefecture of Xingjiang, China” this scholarly book was just published this past January, and it turns out the book was edited by Mr. Zhaojian and a colleague, Mr. Wang Bo. Though the book is in Chinese, fortunately for me (and other English readers) the book is also bound with an English edition, too.
Mr. Zahojian is a remarkable man. He was China’s first national ski champion and for more than 50 years he has served the sport as an athlete, coach, manager, author, and national level director. In 1993 he first proposed the idea that skiing originated in China. Since then he has organized a thorough academic and scientific study of skiing in the Altay (also known as Altai) region. He also promotes the ancient ski culture of the Altay with the Ancient Fur Ski Race held each January during the last several years. It’s a ski race that racers must use traditional-style skis. Though we might consider the ski-style to be ancient, the skis are still used by hunters and herders in the Altay. As we know today, and as the people of the Altay have known for thousands of years, skis are the best way to get around in winter.
Over the past five years or so, some of you may have become acquainted with Nils Larsen, an American ski-history researcher and his documentary “Skiing In The Shadow Of Genghis Khan – Timeless Skiers of the Altai.” Click on this link for a recent write-up on the Altay by Larsen. His DVD is worth buying. Here’s a teaser from 2007 that I found on YouTube.
The Birthplace of Skiing
So how long ago and where did skiing start? From Mr. Zahojian, I learned skiing has been around at least twice long as originally known, and it didn’t start in Scandinavia.
Conventional wisdom places the birthplace of skiing in Scandinavia, and the evidence seems pretty solid. The first ski book was written in Sweden in 1555. In 1206 Birkebeiner soldiers on skis rescued Prince Haakon during the Norwegian Civil War. Two thousand years ago the Roman poet Virgil told of skiers in his poem Aenied. In 1992, a ski found in Sweden was dated to be 4,500 years old. A ski found in Finland is only 500 years younger. And rock art from Norway, estimated to be from 3500 BC shows a man on some pretty big skis. Yup, the evidence seems pretty conclusive that skiing started in countries of northern Europe. Or did it?
Rock art discovered in 1936 in Russia along the River Vyg and Lake Onega clearly showed human figures on skis. The carvings are thought to be about the same age as the Swedish ski. This region is east of Finland so technically part of Europe, but it was evidence that skiing people lived further to the east. It was until nearly 30 years later that evidence was found of older skiing people, but thanks to the Cold War the information never made it to the “west.” In the 1960s a ski relic found in Russia near Vis, just east of the northern Ural Mountains, was even older. Found in a peat bog, the ski dated back 8,000 years. It was the credible archeological evidence that people skied in northern Asia before Scandinavia. In recent years in the Altai (Gold) Mountains of Central Asia even older pictographs and stone carvings have been found. The oldest are from the Dundebulake river valley in the Altay (Altai) Mountains of northwestern China. These go back at least 10,000 years and maybe earlier. Here are a couple of examples from Zhaojian’s book.
The pictographs and carvings were found along Dundebulake River, not far from Handegate (Mongolia).
“Riding Wood Sliding Figure 1.” Rock art cited by Zhaojian and Bo (2011) from Silk Road Sports Catalog (2008) edited by Li Jimmei and Li Zhongshen.
This next one, a rock carving, is very interesting because it shows the skier with two sticks (ski poles?). The “two-stick” technique, pushed by Austrian Army Officer Georg Bilgeri, was not adopted until around World War I.
“Skier, Wolf, Sheep.” Rock art cited by Zhaojian and Bo (2011) from Silk Road Sports Catalog (2008) edited by Li Jimmei and Li Zhongshen.
So it looks like skiing is much older than we thought. And it looks like rockered skis are not a new innovation either. It seems that “sometimes the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Thanks for reading.